By Sharon Sheridan, MG correspondent
Jairo Barreto perched on a chair in the parish hall at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown getting his hair trimmed – a fresh cut and, he hopes, part of a fresh start.
On his own since he was 16, the Morristown native weathered some rough-and-tumble days and acquired a criminal record. “I got into a decent amount of trouble when I was a kid,” said Barreto, now 32.
He’s been out of trouble for years now, but he is having trouble finding work. Legally blind, he lives in Section 8 housing in the Hollow. His girlfriend, Debra Gallia, brought him to St. Peter’s on Dec. 6 for Project Homeless Connect 2012, run by the Mental Health Association of Morris County. There, he took the first steps in learning how to clean up his record and move forward.
“They opened up a new road for me,” he said. “It’s like a new doorway.”
Introduced in Morris County five years ago, Project Homeless Connect started in San Francisco in 2004 and spread across the country.
“Basically, the goal is for each county to host their own,” said Lisa Falcone, director of Homeless Outreach Services of the Mental Health Association, which hosts the event at St. Peter’s with the aid of other local social-service agencies.
“The idea is to reach out to the homeless and those at risk of homelessness. We bring the services to them,” she said. “When people are homeless, it’s impossible to coordinate what might be necessary to become sheltered and have financial benefits all in one day. … The homeless are traumatized, and trauma is something that really needs to be understood. People want to be self-sufficient. When you’re traumatized, you need that helping hand.”
Project Homeless Connect celebrates hope and provides “one-stop shopping” for services, from hair cuts, flu shots and diabetes screening to links for securing benefits, Falcone said. The Youth at Church Group at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Mountain Lakes and area Scouts collected donations of toiletries, socks and cold-weather items like hats and gloves. On Dec. 6, Webelos Scout Will Ferentinos, 9, of Parsippany Cub Scout Pack 5 and Boy Scout Nick Capone, 12, of Troop 173 were among the young people on hand to help hand out the donations and serve baked goods and beverages.
The association’s outreach program directly serves about 150 people a year, Falcone said.
Barreto and Gallia are among those it has helped. Gallia, who has medical challenges, lost her job two years ago and had been living with friends but now will be placed in a hotel until other housing opens up. Her unemployment payments benefits have run out.
“I’ve got a positive attitude. I’m all about celebrating the spirit,” said Gallia. Standing in the parish hall wearing a bright-green fuzzy hat, the woman known as “Hat Girl” described her philosophy as “live, give, love and laugh – and you’ve got to have a hat.”
“You just put a hat on, you just brighten up people’s days,” she said. “Always remember: Somebody else has it worse. Even though I don’t really have anything, I can still walk into a room with a hat on and make a difference.”
Still, the former legal secretary needs a helping hand of her own.
“I’m 48 years old. I’ve never been at this point in my whole life,” she said. “The people that I thought were there for me aren’t there. I need to come to this program.”
Said Falcone, “I’ve spoken to thousands of homeless people. They’re resilient. They want to work. It’s not as simple as people think.”
Jobs are hard to find, she said. “The line is longer than it ever has been, and they’re at the back of the line.”
About 60 people inquired about training services during the four-hour Project Homeless Connect program, said Donna Buchanan, assistant director of Employment and Training Services, covering Morris, Sussex and Warren counties. “It was a good exchange for those that stopped by.”
Unemployed individuals may seek training to increase their marketable skills for in-demand jobs. The biggest barrier for many is transportation, Buchanan said.
She gave high marks to Project Homeless Connect as a one-stop services location for people instead of sending them to multiple agencies in different places, as an opportunity for people to find out about available services and as a way for service providers to network. “This is the way to go. I think this is exactly what we need.”
Webelos Scout Will spent much of the day handing out baked goods and beverages and also helped distribute bags of donated items. “I think it’s very fun,” he said. And he enjoyed the opening presentation, where four formerly homeless people described their experiences, he said.
“I’ve been doing this for four years, and I think it’s amazing,” said Boy Scout Nick. “It doesn’t even feel like community services … It’s just so fun.”
“I hope to come back for many more.”